‘Fog of war” is a notorious euphemism for the unanticipated consequences of armed conflict. As active-duty and retired officers have attested during the first weeks of the Iraqi war, the battle plan changes the moment armed forces go into combat. As Iraqi Fedayeen have disguised themselves in civilian dress, attacked under white flags, employed suicide bombers and coerced civilians into taking up arms against U.S. and British troops, the fog of war has begun to envelop Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The coalition has been surprised by the strength of Iraqi resistance. Predictions of open rebellion by Shiite Muslims in the south and around Baghdad have failed to materialize. Iraqis, deceived by American advice to rebel against Saddam Hussein in 1991 and terrorized for decades by Saddam and his Baath Party, have shown themselves wary at best about the prospect of their liberation. Meanwhile, Iraqi irregular troops have prevented the British from “liberating” Basra; and by attacking supply lines, they have delayed the U.S. advance on Baghdad.
Already CNN’s Alessio Vinci reports that Iraqi civilian casualties outnumber coalition casualties five to one. In the Arab world, at least, the United States is held responsible for these deaths, even though it is quite probable that Iraqi operations were the direct cause of many of them. It is quite possible, for example, that the much reported market bombings were a result of Iraqi missiles falling back on the neighborhoods from which they were fired. The fedayeen are certainly fighting a guerrilla-style war, using various deceptions and reckless bravado to attack the better armed and better armored American troops.
U.S. troops have been under enormous pressure to loosen their rules of engagement in order to fight more effectively against these unconventional tactics. To their credit, they continue to fight under strict rules of engagement in ambiguous situations. Still, there have been tragic killings, like those of seven women and children whose van failed to stop at a checkpoint on March 31. Tragically, in the fog of war one can anticipate more such shootings and more accidents like those in Baghdad markets. The danger of heavy civilian casualties will rise with the battle for Baghdad. Whether Baghdad is taken by siege or street-fighting, many innocent people will die.
In such circumstances, it is imperative that coalition forces fight smart, taking the fewest lives in winning their military objectives. So far, the precision munitions, much touted by the military in advance of the war, have performed largely as advertised, and targeting for the most part has avoided civilian sites and dual-use infrastructure, a major advance in discrimination over the first gulf war, in which civilian infrastructure was bombed to make Iraq more compliant in post-war negotiations. This added enormously to the civilian death toll in that war.
Until now the motive for upholding strict rules of engagement seems to have been the desire to win over the population in the interest of securing the peace after hostilities end. The United States has also had an interest in reducing opportunities for Iraqi propaganda to inflame Arab and world public opinion. But the battle for Baghdad, where U.S. forces can expect fierce resistance, will put stress on the military to loosen rules of engagement for the sake of protecting American personnel and permitting them to fight hard against the city’s defenders.
As the battle for Baghdad draws near, it is vital that military personnel, political leaders and the public understand the principle of noncombatant immunity that lies behind the rules of engagement and that, to the best of their ability, the military adhere to it. Civilians, as well as other noncombatants (e.g., prisoners and the wounded), are immune from attack because they offer no threat to attacking forces. Under the just war approach and the international law of armed conflict, soldiers take up arms to defend the innocent, that is, those who present no threat. Accordingly, they may attack only those who threaten them, and they are likewise responsible for not harming “enemy” civilians.
For some, this duty seems too scrupulous a requirement, a desideratum to be upheld when things are going well for our troops, but not when the tide of battle goes against them. For others, there is a visceral reaction to putting our own troops at risk to protect the enemy population. Indeed, that is exactly what is required. Genuine warrior honor requires that armed and armored military personnel take risks for the sake of civilian life. For Christians, moreover, respect for the lives of enemy civilians is part and parcel of our respect for the dignity of human life and of the love of enemies that Jesus commanded.